Living in Smog: The Social and Economic Impact of Severe Air Pollution in China
December 7, 2016
by Kelsey Chong
As a Chinese major, one of my biggest aspirations in college was to one day visit China and experience the culture firsthand. When I received the opportunity to study in Beijing during my sophomore year, I was ecstatic that my dream to study abroad in East Asia was finally coming true.
My father, however, was far from happy. Upon hearing the word “Beijing”, his eyes filled with dread. “Beijing just issued its first red alert, and the city is engulfed in toxic smog. You don’t know what that will do to your health!”
Brushing off my father’s opposition as over-protective parenting, I eagerly applied for my visa and anticipated my exciting summer abroad. My Chinese classes had equipped me with survival phrases, cultural knowledge, and the names of must-try local dishes – I thought I was ready for anything.
Little did I know, no class could have prepared me to spend a summer in the life-threatening pollution of China’s capital.
The Cost of Success
In 1978, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, at only one-fortieth of the real per capita GDP level of the United States.  In just three decades of intensive urbanization and industrialization, China has not only climbed out of widespread poverty, but also transformed into the world’s largest producer of consumer goods  and the second largest economy.  Despite still being a developing country, China has already surpassed the United States in a number of fields, such as supercomputing, transportation, and nuclear power. 
However, this unprecedented rate of development was not without a price: as the economy skyrocketed, so did levels of extreme environmental degradation. China is the world’s most populated nation at approximately 1.4 billion people.  In order to achieve rapid growth on such an enormous scale, the country heavily relies on energy-intensive industry and urbanization. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of this energy is fueled by coal – the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and the greatest contributor to global warning.  Reaching a peak of about four billion tons burned in 2014,  China burns more coal than the United States, Europe, and Japan combined.
Toxic emissions from coal have flooded China’s air with harmful pollutants, creating a thick, gray shroud of smog that engulfs entire cities. The heavy air pollution brings hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, causing serious illnesses like cancer along with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.  These health issues then further result in economic consequences such as high medical costs, lower productivity due to increase in missed working days, and the deterrence of foreign businesses and tourists.  In addition, air pollution also causes acid rain that disperses toxic chemicals into water and soil: severely limiting available drinking water, killing forests and wildlife, and harming overall crop productivity.
In December 2015, China faced some of the worst smog in history as skyscrapers vanished into thick clouds of haze, and visibility in some areas dropped to 200 meters.  With public safety at stake, Beijing issued its first-ever red alert: a city-wide warning to close schools, suspend construction and factory work, and force vehicles off the roads due to extreme air pollution levels deemed unsafe for exposure. 
Schools and businesses across the nation have already started to implement special policies to adapt to the severe conditions. Following the 2015 red alert, many campuses are now adopting a “stop class, but don’t stop learning” (停课不停学) approach to ensure students’ education is not hindered by frequent school shut downs. Campus-run websites, social media, and live broadcasting are some of the new methods schools are using to teach students from home.  Some companies are also giving time off, shortening work hours, and allowing employees to apply for work at home leave on days with especially heavy smog. 
A Part of Everyday Life
Although air-quality improved significantly by up to 17.9 percent in the months leading up to the summer of 2016 , my days studying in the national capital were still hazy with pollution. Some days the smog would be chokingly thick, other days it would be so light I could barely feel it. But whether smog thick or thin, sky rain or shine – an unmistakable, thick layer of gray always blanketed everything in sight.
Finally realizing the gravity of my father’s warnings, I began to do everything I could to avoid outdoor air exposure. Whenever I went out, I would always wear a protective facemask. Even in the lightest of smog, I would always keep my windows tightly shut. Instead of running outside, I would only exercise indoors. When air-quality dropped to unsafe levels, I would avoid going outside entirely.
While many of my American peers also adopted similar habits, I was shocked to find that most locals never wore facemasks, even on the smoggiest of days. Even when air-quality was hazardously low, I would often observe groups of carefree Chinese students outside my window happily jogging around campus or playing sports with friends.
Beijing resident Margaret Zhu explains: “It's like gambling… Every day you wake up and look up at the sky and see how it goes.” Zou Yi, another Beijing local, similarly adds: “When you've been living here for such a long time, you're not afraid of it any more.” 
For foreigners like me, living in extreme smog was only a short summer experience that would end after a few months. But for Chinese, severe air pollution has become an inescapable part of everyday life.
About the Author
Kelsey Chong is currently a third year at the University of California Berkeley, double majoring in Chinese and Japanese language with a Korean language minor. Aside from cross-cultural communications, she is interested in the intersection of humanities and other fields like business and healthcare. To connect with Kelsey, please email email@example.com.
1. Zhu, Xiaodong. "Understanding China’s Growth: Past, Present, and Future."
Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 26, no. 4, 2012, p. 103,
pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.26.4.103. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
2. Kahn, Joseph, and Jim Yardley. "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly
Extremes." The New York Times, 26 Aug. 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/
world/asia/26china.html?_r=0. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
3. Hirst, Tomas. "A brief history of China’s economic growth." World Economic
Forum, 30 July 2015, www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/07/
brief-history-of-china-economic-growth/. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
4. Aston, Adam. "7 Technologies Where China Has the U.S. Beat." GreenBiz, 7
Dec. 2010, www.greenbiz.com/blog/2010/12/07/-technologies-where-china-has-us-beat. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
5. "China." UN Data, United Nations Statistics Division, 2016, data.un.org/
CountryProfile.aspx?crName=china. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
8. Gardner, Daniel K. "China’s Off-the-Chart Air Pollution: Why It Matters (and Not
Only to the Chinese) - Part One." Interview by Claire Topal and Yeasol
Chung. The National Bureau of Asian Research, 14 Jan. 2014, www.nbr.org/
research/activity.aspx?id=394. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
10. Phillips, Tom. "Beijing Issues First Pollution Red Alert as Smog Engulfs
Capital." The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2015, www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/
dec/07/beijing-pollution-red-alert-smog-engulfs-capital. Accessed 30 Oct.
11. China Education Online Zhejiang Branch. "我宁愿在蓝天白云下上学，也不愿在雾霾天放假" ["I Would Rather Go to School on Blue Sky White Cloud Days, than Have Holidays on Smog Days"]. EOL, 9 Dec. 2015, www.eol.cn/zhejiang/zhejiang_news/201512/t20151209_1346480.shtml. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
12. Hong, Xue, et al. “北京8日启动雾霾红色预警 物流公司全体放假” ["Beijing Issues Smog Red Alert on the 8th, Delivery Company Gives All Staff Holiday"]. Xinmin, 8 Dec. 2015, news.xinmin.cn/shehui/2015/12/08/29070601.html. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
13. "Beijing Says Air Quality Improved in First Half of 2016." Phys.org, Science x
network, 19 July 2016, phys.org/news/2016-07-beijing-air-quality.html.
Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.
Building Centers for Action Research Universities are already conducting great research, but many still struggle to convert their knowledge and insights into real-world impact. One solution is to encourage the formation of multidiciplinary collaborative teams. (more)